It all started off through a culinary discussion with a local Thai restaurateur, in Phang-Nga
town, southern Thailand. Faced with the second dish of decidedly fishy chillied pork and rice in as many days, I was determined to get to the root, or more correctly, the seafoody base of my poor meal selection.
Having spent a fair amount of time in Thailand, I have learnt to generally avoid restaurants targeted at tourists, targeted with their plusher decor and extensive English menus, menus polished to largely extract those embarrassing spelling mistakes, such as "crap on rice". One downside to these eateries is that the Thai dishes can often be doctored for western palates with a corresponding doctoring of the price for western wallets.
In tourist areas, the alternative commonly involves finding the ramshackle street-side food stall - often the one sadly lacking an English menu, and/or English-speaking owner. The upside is that one has full opportunity to practice any newfound Thai language skills, or failing that, engage in animated games of charades.
On this day I had chosen the non-touristy dining option, a tidy, if not attractive restaurant with simple but honest furnishings, a handful of food choices already cooked and displayed in the street-side display cabinet.
My palette has a general disinclination to the taste of most seafood dishes, and having carefully skirted those options, I agitatedly pondered how to overcome this recurrent issue as I overcame the bad aftertaste with a hearty swig of Coke.
Putting my six months of Thai language studies to practical use, I ask the female restaurateur whether my chillied pork contains any naam plaa (น้ำปลา - fish sauce). "Mai mii" ("No have" - ไม่มี) is the response. Any seafood? "Mai mii". Not convinced, and declining her kind offer to change my meal, I make a mental note to deconstruct Thai cooking down to the last ingredient at a later date.
Having resigned myself to my seafood infused pork, I look up to see a rather tall and strongly built ka-toey (กะเทย - ladyboy) approaching from her nearby table. "Can I help you?" she politely inquires. Having been happy to let sleeping dogs lie, I decide to solve the mystery once and for all when "Aoi" (*not her real name) also assures me in gentle English that there is no seafood in the curry. What then of the overwhelming fishy taste? After a two-minute crash course in Thai cooking, I discover that the curry contains ga-bi (กะปิ - shrimp paste).
It evidently seems that Thais do not consider processed foods made with a full dose of pulverised crustaceans as seafood. To me it's a case of overlooking the obvious. While unrelated, as a child I did encounter a similar line of logic from an Australian video store clerk who once advised my protective mother that my proposed film rental “didn’t contain much violence – it’s mostly shooting”!
Having solved the morning’s culinary mini-puzzle, and breezed through some introductory pleasantries, Aoi asks me and my friend and fellow traveller Tom what we are planning to do for the day. She gleefully declares, “I am freedom”. I decipher this as not being a bold personal proclamation of her lifestyle choices, but rather to mean that as a teacher, she has some free time, due to the current month of school holidays.
Aoi gladly suggests she take us to our intended destination of Sa-Nang Manora Forest Park, a lovely, lush, cool rainforest just outside Phang-Nga town; its revitalising bathing pools under the forest canopy a wonderful escape from the relentless Thai sun. Tom and I watch and eventually join the holidaying Thai teenagers who swing from rattan vines before dropping into the refreshing pool below.
Fully re-invigorated, we venture back towards Aoi’s car and find her happily wandering amongst the greenery and trickling streams. Having intimated our plans to reach Khao Lak (one of the beachside towns most affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) that day, Aoi had proposed she take us all the way, en-route to a wedding she was attending in the general vicinity. The bride to be was a former student of Aoi's.
As time went on and Aoi’s shiny new Toyota started putting miles between Phang-Nga town and us, Aoi began making a few overtures that Tom and I might also like to join the wedding party.
The event in question was actually a wedding-eve party for the bride to be (the groom was involved in a similar event just down the road). Without wanting to offend our friendly host, and VIP taxi driver, I meekly uttered that we would prefer to continue on to Khao Lak.
With a detour to a natural hot spring, and an offer to visit a waterfall, it became apparent that Aoi was filling in time before the early evening wedding party. With no sign of Khao Lak on Aoi's chosen route, it became increasingly clear that Tom and I had been abducted. Abducted with kindness.
And so it was that the two Australian boys, unshaven, sun-parched, donning board shorts, thongs and strikingly ruffled hair, arrived at a somewhat remote, flourishingly green but otherwise undefined point in the Phang-Nga countryside, and made their grand entrance to a Thai wedding they hadn’t been invited to.
Fortunately we were early, such that only the immediate family, the sound technicians, the canopy erectors (a large storm was approaching), the army of local cooking ladies and an assortment of close friends were on hand to view our inglorious arrival.
Doing their level best to not make us feel like the gatecrashers that we were, our hosts promptly furnished us with drinks and an impromptu Thai cooking lesson down at the cooking marquee. Women from the neighbourhood purposefully fulfilled their allocated areas of duty – one chopping up herbs, another crushing chillies with yet another preparing the huge cooking vats that suggested we were in for a feast. I then spotted, or more correctly sniffed the ingredient I was beginning to think I would have nightmares about – ga bi. We had come full circle.
Continue Reading: Part 2 of 2 link below